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City Planning to Serve Ordinary People or Those in Power?

Keywords: city planning, development, housing problems, environmental problem, Laudato Si, political structure

Everyone wants to own a comfortable and decent home. Good city planning should aim at providing people a decent place to live in dignity, taking into consideration the impact of city planning on the future generation and the environment. In Hong Kong, due to the government policy of giving privilege to the property developers since the colonial rule period, as well as the wrong use of land and lack of long-term city planning, Hong Kong is regarded as one of the world’s least affordable property markets, leading to serious housing problems. Tens of thousands of low-income families are waiting in long queues for public rental housing and they are forced to live in super small cubical units. Some families even live in a room of less than 15 square meters.

In order to solve the land supply problem, the existing government set up a Task Force on Land Supply in September 2017, and a public consultation was conducted in April 2018 in order to arrive at a consensus on land supply measures. However, without waiting for the report from the Task Force, in the name of increasing land and housing supply in various ways and preparing for future use, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, announced an ambitious, controversial plan of creating a new metropolis on artificial islands, known as “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” in her annual policy address in October 2018. Lam said that there is an urgent need to solve the housing problem and people cannot wait. This scheme will be the most expensive infrastructure project in Hong Kong, or one of the world’s most expensive construction projects, with an estimated cost of at least HK$624 billion (US$80 billion).

In view of this multibillion-dollar project, Hong Kong city planning scholar Mee-kam Ng raises an important question: Does city planning aim at serving those in power, and maintaining the interests of a small group of people with a grand vision and blueprint? Or is city planning really able to serve the ordinary people and solve the land problem, without destroying the ecology?

In this project, the government will build several gigantic man-made islands east and north of Lantau Island, the largest island in Hong Kong and where the Hong Kong airport is located. These huge artificial islands are envisioned to provide 1,700 hectares of land, where an estimated 260,000 to 400,000 new homes can be built to accommodate 0.7 to 1.1 million people. If everything goes smoothly, these new homes would be available by 2032. Such a plan astonished many people, especially members of the Task Force on Land Supply, as reclaiming 1,700 hectares of land was never mentioned during the public consultation.

There are a number of concerns about this project. One of the biggest concerns is the cost. Although the estimated cost is billions of dollars, the government denied it would drain the public coffers because the estimated cost averaged out to an affordable HK$50 billion annually over 15 years. However, legislator Eddie Chu argued that the estimate was misleading because it did not count in the inflated cost. Chu suggested that the final bill could be more than HK$1 trillion (US$128 billion) by the time reclamation began, that is, almost all the financial reserves of Hong Kong. Moreover, objectors also expressed concern about cost overruns, which had caused trouble to major infrastructure projects in recent years. Many wonder if it is worth investing all in one project. Is it making good use of resources?

Critics argued that other options for boosting land supply should be employed, including developing 1,300 hectares of brownfield sites, the degraded agricultural land occupied by businesses like car parks or recycling yards in the New Territories. A study by Greenpeace found that it would cost only 10 per cent of the Lantau budget to buy 800 hectares of unplanned brownfield sites. Even when the cost of relocating businesses operating on such sites or infrastructure is added, the cost would be much less. Moreover, developing these existing sites is much faster than reclaiming land. Greenpeace said by spending less money, the government could gain large tracts of land for development while solving planning problems in rural areas. This is a much better alternative. As Professor Ng points out, figures show that Hong Kong does not lack land, but there are extremely serious problems in planning and distributing land usage.

Furthermore, concerns have centered on pollution and environmental damage arising from the creation of new land. Large scale reclamation will damage the ecosystems of the sea and its surrounding areas. Residents of nearby islands and professionals worry that by creating new islands, the sea channels would be narrowed and currents would intensify, thus, waves could become higher and more powerful when strong typhoons hit. It would also affect the quality of water and the living environment of sea creatures. Moreover, reclamation requires tons of sand, imported from mainland China and other places. It would lead to an ecological crisis in these places. Looking back at the history of reclamation, Hong Kong has never tried to reclaim land from the middle of the sea like at East Lantau. This is a kind of building “out of nothing”, using a triumphalist and anthropocentric attitude to build land without caring about the side-effect and undesirable results. Do the government officials even think of the universal destination of the world’s goods and the basic human rights, that is a safe living environment, of the existing residents of the nearby islands who are ordinary people without much power? These are important Catholic principles when we evaluate any policy of development.

Global warming and climate change also matter, as indicated in the social encyclical Laudato Si. According to climatologists, if the earth’s temperature rises by 2 to 4 degrees Celsius, the water level may rise by 4.7 to 8.9 meters after 200 years. How high will the East Lantau need to build in order to protect the future of this artificial island for our future generations? If we want to withstand the effects of climate change and seawater rise, it will definitely cost a lot, and there will be considerable risks. This path is impossible to solve the housing problems of Hong Kong people today. This kind of construction, which is hostile to nature, is likely to become a burden for our city in the long run. Is it responsible to use hundreds of billions of resources to destroy the marine ecology and build an artificial construction that may be ravaged by climate change? As Pope Francis put it, “what kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (LS, #160) The notion of common good also extends to future generation. We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity (LS, #159). Such irresponsible and unsustainable development behavior would not be agreed to by many people, except to government officials and big construction companies.

The vision of city planning should be based on reality, the needs of people, scientific arguments, rational analysis, and care for the laws of nature through listening to viewpoints of relevant parties, especially experts in relevant fields and people who live in the city. If the Hong Kong government only seeks to increase land with its narrow vision and merely listens to those who support its policy and the business sector, lacking the vision of strategic planning and denying people’s participation in policy-making, Hong Kong is unlikely to become sustainable in the future. In fact, many believe that the force behind this project is the big Hong Kong and Chinese enterprises which have close connection with the Chinese government.

The “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” project is just one example which demonstrates the governing attitude of the government – refusing to listen to people’s opinions and concerns, and concerning more about the interest of the big business enterprises as well as the Chinese government, due to the unjust political structure of Hong Kong. The recent discussion of the extradition law which allows the government to transfer fugitives to jurisdictions the city does not now have an extradition agreement with, such as mainland China, is an example of this.

Under the existing political structure, our government leaders are not directly elected by all people. They may not feel the need to be accountable to the general public, but only to the 1,200 people appointed by the Beijing government in the small-circle election committee, in which many are from the business sector and big property developers. That is why so many Hong Kong people, especially the younger generation, have tried to strive for democracy and try to affect the policies that are related to ourselves. This can be seen through the social and democratic movements, especially the 2014 Occupy Movement/Umbrella Movement. Unfortunately and sadly, in April 2019, nine Occupy Movement leaders were all found guilty of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance and some were also convicted of one count of inciting others to commit public nuisance and/or inciting others to incite. Four of them were put in jail immediately from 8 to 16 months. But in fact, they just tried to challenge the existing political structure through an action of civil disobedience. Such a result leads to disappointment, frustration and helplessness on the part of many people, knowing there will be no big change in the near future.

In spite of this, Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai said: “No matter what happens, I am confident that many of us will continue to strive for democracy. We will persist and will not give up.” Another co-founder Kin-man Chan said: “I still believe in the power of love and peace.”

 In city planning or other policies, though there is a lack of consultation and authentic listening to the needs of people, we have to insist in expressing our opinions through various means, and never give up.